Essays: “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” by David Rakoff

don't get too comfortableI’ve previously reviewed David Rakoff’s first collection of essays, Fraud. I’ve read Don’t Get Too Comfortable before as well, prior to the inception of That’s What She Read. I can’t remember what prompted me to pick this collection off of my bookshelf (mainly because I read this book back in August and I’m really ashamed, y’all, but then I remember that I don’t have deadlines for this because it’s my own thing, available on the interwebs for free, so suck it, Shame), but I’m happy my impulse paid off.

Like FraudDon’t Get Too Comfortable is a collection of humorous essays that have been published previously elsewhere, namely GQ and Harper’s Bazaar. The subtitle gives the reader a hint of the subject matter: “The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems.” I was wondering if this book was the origin of the phrase “first world problems,” but according to Wikipedia, it’s … not. So. Oh well.

The topics of Mr. Rakoff’s essays range from the day he took his citizenship test – Mr. Rakoff was a Canadian who earned dual citizenship after 9/11 – to his love of crafting, and a treatise on Log Cabin Republicans, a class of politico that I think may have become extinct? Do we even have those anymore?

He’s not lying when he subtitled his book to refer to First World Problems. Everything in this book is a First World Problem. As poignant as he is about gaining his dual residency, Mr. Rakoff came to New York on a work visa and lived as such for twenty-two years. He was of Canadian origin. There was no “extreme vetting” for his class, because he was white.

His job writing essays for highbrow magazines sent him on numerous … adventures, I guess, is the word? He wrote a piece as an observer on a Latin America Playboy television program. He wrote an essay about his experience on one of the last flights of the Concorde, and the class of people who were able to ride on the Concorde. There’s an excursion he goes on with a Wildman of Central Park, who teaches his students how to scavenge the foliage for edible plant life. These are not exposés on the horrors imposed on humanity by other humans.

(This all sounds very cynical. I think the tone I’m using to review this book is much different from the tone I would have used in August, right after I finished reading it. Back in August, I probably would have said that his saga on becoming an American citizen was quaint and inspired – now, all I can see is that he was the “right” kind of immigrant, and even though he outright admits that his story is not one of struggle, it feels disingenuous to me to even talk about a white Canadian’s immigration experience, however humorously the subject is presented.)

(I had just written this long parenthetical about how, for my birthday, I would like a time machine to go back four months so I can fucking fix something, but then I remembered that time machines only move an individual back in time, not the entire world, and I can’t exactly bring the entire population of the United States back with me so they can tell their friends about ~the future~ to help ensure a different outcome, plus what happens when we run into our past selves? Anyway, my brain hurt from the paradox so I’m going to shut up now.)

One of the essays I’d like to mention is his take on the quest for perfection in everything, entitled “What Is The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

[[IF Y’ALL DIDN’T IMMEDIATELY START DOING THIS —

one hand clapping

— EVEN THOUGH THE TITLE SAYS “SHOPPING” AND NOT “CLAPPING”, GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIBRARY]]

(Oh god, I have two digressions now. Okay. #1: “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first aired twenty years ago on March 10. Fuck offffff. That’s — I am not that old. [[if you’re curious as to how that tidbit came out of apparently nowhere, I must remind you that in “The Dark Age,” Willow gets mad at Xander and Cordelia for fighting and she has this great rant that ends with “if you two aren’t with me a hundred and ten percent, then get the hell out of my library!” So — good quote.]]

Secondly: the “one hand clapping” .gif up there is one of my favorite visual jokes of all time, and that led my brain to want to mention my first favorite hand-related joke, which is, of course, this old chestnut from The Great Muppet Caper:

Kermit: Now, if we want to get Miss Piggy out of jail, we’re going to have to catch those thieves red-handed. Yes, Beauregard?
Beauregard: What color are their hands now?

AND THEN I remembered that, two Trivia Nights ago, Friend Brad was telling me a story about a shoplifter or … y’know, I can’t honestly remember what the premise was, but anyway, he said something about “catching them red-handed.” And like Pavlov’s Dog, I proudly and immediately shouted, “WHAT COLOR WERE THEIR HANDS THEN?!” I mean, I have never been lucky enough to use this punchline in everyday conversation, so the entire experience was awesome.

But Friend Brad either decided to ignore my outburst — which, in his defense, would be a valid defense strategy; I am a pretty weird person, and ignoring my weird outbursts is probably a good mechanism to have — or, he didn’t think the joke was funny enough to warrant a response, which would be wrong. This is a great joke.

And then I started to wonder if he’d ever even seen The Great Muppet Caper, and I’m sorry, if he’s going to razz me about fucking Shawshank every time he sees me but hasn’t seen The Great Muppet Caper? Fuck offffff.)

Where was I? Oh right – “What’s The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

As I said, this essay is about the cult of seeking perfection. Y’know, the people who spend ungodly amounts of money on items that are supposed to be pure, or authentic, or … or whatever. I don’t know. I don’t understand that concept. I am widely known as The Oldest Millennial Alive, because I have a Samsung Galaxy 4 (it still works! I am not the President of the United States, so I don’t require more security!) and a 4th generation iPod Nano, purchased in 2009, which still works, and why would I replace something that isn’t broken? So the idea of spending more in order to demonstrate greatness is just lost on me.

Surely when we’ve reached the point where we’re fetishizing sodium chloride and water, and subjecting both to the kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for selecting an oncologist, it’s time to admit that the relentless questing for that next undetectable gradation of perfection has stopped being about the thing itself and crossed over into a realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless. [p. 24]

One essay that spoke to me was “Martha, My Dear,” wherein Mr. Rakoff discusses his deep love for crafting, amidst the tale of his visit to the craft supply closet at Martha Stewart Living. I also enjoy crafting: from crocheting scarves and stuffed animals (and lately, a whole mess of baby blankets and other stuff for expecting friends and acquaintances), to cross-stitching profanity-laden quotes from Deadwood and then turning those quotes into a pillow —

Cocksucker pillow

— and now my latest project: making maternity shirts for a friend of mine because, dear everyone: GEEKS GET PREGNANT TOO, and geeks who enjoy wearing geeky t-shirts want to continue to wear geeky t-shirts while pregnant, but does every goddamned shirt have to point out that the wearer is pregnant?!

Here’s a smattering. I am so incensed on her behalf, I’m actually considering teaching myself to use a sewing machine and not just adjusting previously-made geek shirts. (Another thing I should do: figure out how long and involved the process is to register a trade name before someone else steals my/our idea…)

I make stuff because I can’t not make stuff. [p. 120]

IT’S ME

The last essay I want to mention, I’m going to get to in a kind of roundabout way. I was first introduced to Mr. Rakoff with his appearance on The Daily Show back in … holy shit, 2006. Oh my god. Jon Stewart interviewed him at the release of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and after watching it, I knew I had to read this book as soon as possible.

(I encourage everyone to take six minutes out of their day to watch the video at the above link, if only to see how young Jon Stewart was back then. Oh, Jon. My Forever-Pretend-Boyfriend. Have I told you lately how much I miss you, Jon? Please come back I miss you.)

Anyways. I bought the book, read it, devoured it, and loved it. And then — okay, I can’t remember if I was lending it to Uncle Jean (who I used to work with), or if I had just — no, I couldn’t have been leaving it in Brad’s mailbox, because this was while Brad was still manager, so I would have just left it on his desk … I must have lent the book to someone else prior to then lending it and Fraud to Brad, but the point of this part of the story is, I distinctly remember talking to Uncle Jean about the book, and about this one essay, entitled “Beat Me, Daddy”, which is the essay Mr. Rakoff refers to in his interview with Jon Stewart.

“Beat Me, Daddy”, for those who have elected to not watch the video, is an essay about the Log Cabin Republicans of yore – gay Republicans who just wanted lower taxes, but the Grand Ol’ Party wasn’t really welcoming or accepting back then? Wow, those were the days!

Mr. Rakoff speaks with Patrick Guerriero, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, who tells Mr. Rakoff,

“I have a lot of strikes against me […] I’m a Catholic from the archdiocese of Boston, from a Democratic family, and I’m a Red Sox fan. I’ve chosen to stay in institutions I care about.” [p. 157-158]

But as Mr. Rakoff points out,

It’s all well and good to stay in the institutions you care about, but wouldn’t it be nice to feel that the institution, in turn, cared about you, or at least wasn’t hell-bent on your eradication or, failing that, the legislating away of your rights? [p. 158]

OH GOD IT’S TOO REAL RIGHT NOW THIS WAS SUCH A CHARMING SENTENCE BACK IN AUGUST

Now, here’s the selling point on this essay: this is the part of the story Mr. Rakoff spoke of during his Daily Show interview, and it’s also the section I distinctly remember reading aloud, in its entirety (which I will quote below) to Uncle Jean, in Footwear backstock, within hearing distance of customers.

Man, that was a different time. Now you can’t even talk to your fellow sales reps on the sales floor.

ANYWAY. Mr. Rakoff also spoke with Robert Knight, “director of the conservative advocacy group the Culture and Family Institute” [p. 162]. Mr. Knight is firmly against the Log Cabin Republicans:

“The Log Cabin agenda to promote homosexuality is utterly at odds with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage party.” [p. 163]

Now, it is not my job to disagree with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage, homophobic, Puritan party that disapproves of sexual misconduct and poor technological security, while also promoting itself as a protector of children and the innocent, and above all, highlights honesty and respect for women as two of the most important poles within its “big tent.” Additionally, I am well aware that Democrats have proven themselves to be dangerous hypocrites along some of these same lines.

[[Excuse me while I go take the longest, cleansing-est shower of my life. Yick.]]

It is my job, however, to recount exactly what Mr. Knight said about anal sex, AIDS, and vaginas. Please remember: I read the following paragraphs ALOUD within hearing distance of ACTUAL CUSTOMERS at a very large retail store, and I was NOT FIRED.  \o/

“Sodomy is their rallying cry,” [Knight] says.

Well, it sure is someone’s rallying cry. A lot of our hour-long conversation is taken up with talking about anal sex. I have never spoken so much about anal sex in my life.

[…] But if Knight displays an obsession with the mechanics of sodomy — simultaneously mesmerized and sickened by the tumescent, pistoning images of it that must loop through his head on a near-constant basis — he is notably impervious to an image he conjures when I submit as how HIV is transmissible through normative, upstanding, God-sanctioned heterosexual congress as well.

“Not as easily,” he says. “The vagina is designed to accommodate a penis. It can take a lot of punishment.” [p. 164]

An old white dude explained that straight dudes don’t get AIDS because the vagina can take a lot of punishment. That happened. IN PRINT.

To Mr. Knight, I say:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-1796-1378873954-4_preview

ALAINA OUT.

colbert mic drop

But seriously, read the book if you get a chance – it’s a great collection of essays.

Grade for Don’t Get Too Comfortable: 5 stars

Fiction: “Wicked Intentions” by Elizabeth Hoyt

wicked-intentionsI would rather get a three-hour Pap smear with an Ebola-infected cotton swab and a rusty speculum than listen to the address to the Joint Session of Congress, so in keeping with the theme, let’s talk about a book with mild sado-masochistic tendencies!

Wicked Intentions is the first book in the Maiden Lane series of romance novels, centered around a section of London known as Maiden Lane. I originally got turned to this series because I read a synopsis of one of the books a few years ago where it sounded like the main character became the Batman of Maiden Lane, and if there’s one thing I like, it’s Batmans in different fictional interpretations. Unfortunately, Georgian!Batman is about six books away, and y’all know how I am with series: I have to start at the beginning, regardless of continuity. It’s a Thing.

So the main character of this book is Temperance Dews, a meek widower who helps her brother, Winter, run a foundling home. Her other siblings are named Verity, Silence, Concord, and Asa. Yeah … the Dews family is kind of puritan-y. And in case you don’t get that from the family names, all the orphans in the foundling home are named Mary or Joseph, with different last names to tell them apart (see, Joseph Tinbox; Mary Whitsun; Joseph Candlestick; Mary Hope).

The foundling home is appropriately, almost Dickensian-ly poor, and in danger of shutting down without a rich sponsor. With Winter spending his time teaching school, that leaves Temperance at the home raising the children and running the home – which she does, admirably. But it makes it difficult for funds to come in.

Enter, stage left: the most ridiculously-named hero in the history of silly little romance novels I’ve ever read. Yes, even worse than the ones that add extra “Y”s instead of “I”s. I give you: Lazarus Huntington, Lord Caire. Yes, his name is actually “Lazarus.” Yes, people do call him “Caire.” No, I do not understand how the whole naming thing works. Also, I do not give a shit. You might say I don’t … Caire.

I’ll see myself out.

Now, I don’t normally concern myself with how the dudes and ladies look in romance novels: they’re all Barbie and Ken dolls, after all. But this guy – y’all have to see about this guy.

There, sprawled in her chair like a conjured demon, sat Lord Caire. His silver hair spilled over the shoulders of his black cape, a cocked hat lay on one knee, and his right hand caressed the end of his long ebony walking stick. [p. 15]

OH GEE, WHO COULD THAT BE

lucius-cs

YEAH, THIS MOTHERFUCKER

So, good news, Harry Potter Aficionados That Grew Up Having a Thing for Lucius Malfoy! This is the book for you!

Why is Lazarus Huntington, Lord Malfoy waiting for Temperance to sit down? Well, he saw her helping a baby in the Maiden Lane one night and decided he needs her help in tracking down the murderer of his mistress. Yeah, I’m really not making that up. See, his mistress was brutally murdered, and that made Caire mad, so now he needs to find the murderer to exact revenge. But because he’s a member of the hoit, he doesn’t know where to go to find lowlife scum, so … needs the help of a meek widower?

But Temperance is a lot smarter than she appears. In exchange for her help, she gets Caire to agree to help her find a sponsor for the foundling home. This involves Caire dressing her up and taking her to fancy dress parties, where she (naturally) awes the crowd with her beauty while being completely self-deprecating and awkward.

When Temperance’s acquaintances and family learn of her working relationship with Caire, they all warn her away, because he apparently has what’s known as “unhealthy appetites.” Essentially, rumors of his deviant behavior have run rampant throughout Maiden Lane, and back in the early 1700s, “deviance” is equivalent to “enjoying a bit o’ rough sex.” And it’s not even rough – he just likes being tied up.

Meanwhile, Temperance has her own shit to deal with – namely, she likes having sex, which is just as stigmatized then as it is now. Her husband would make her feel terrible for enjoying sex, because sex should only be enjoyed by the male, and only because he knows he’s making babies for women to carry. (I swear, I only followed the damn speech on Twitter, I have no idea if New Gilead is even happening yet.) As penance, she’s shoved her desires down, deep down, into herself so she can focus on caring for the orphans and showing her purity or whatever.

But as they work together, Caire and Temperance come to realize they have feelings for each other. These feelings are complicated by the fact that Caire also hates to be touched – he claims he feels actual pain when people touch him, but it’s been so long since I read the book that I am not going to bother looking for a quote to prove it.

There are also a lot – a. lot. – of subplots in this book that are apparently jumping-off points for future books in the series. There’s Temperance’s sister, Silence, and the misunderstanding between Silence and her husband. There’s Caire’s best friend, who’s dealing with his wife’s decline due to a mysterious illness. Sometimes the subplots are very distracting.

Overall, it took me entirely too long to finish this book – which has felt like a theme of 2016, to be honest. If my paltry review has made you curious about it, I highly recommend you check out the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review of Wicked Intentions – and I would like to point out that if you do, I came to the Lucius Malfoy conclusion on my own, but was very gratified when I realized I wasn’t the only one who got there. Having said that, I never had a thing for Lucius Malfoy, so imagining him for the hero did absolutely nothing for me while reading the book.

And even though I did not like the book overall, and will most likely never read it again, I really want to find out if Georgian!Batman is a thing, so – you’ll see this series again. Not soon, but … later.

Grade for Wicked Intentions: No stars

Fiction: “The Maze” by Catherine Coulter

the-mazeWhen I was in the middle of reading The Witches, a strange feeling came over me. I couldn’t explain it. I do get this feeling occasionally, but I’m rarely able to pinpoint where the feeling comes from. This time, I think it was a mixture of reading a book for entirely too long (The Witches), plus a general sense of ennui.

That feeling? Was a desire to read a really shitty book. Something I could just … rip to fucking shreds, douse those shreds in gasoline, light a match, toss it over my shoulder, and then walk the fuck away. A pure, antagonistic, anarchic feeling.

It’s been a while since I’ve ranted – really ranted – about anything. At least, nothing literary. I’ve had some rants in public, about certain public events (and gaslighting) that are occurring currently in our society, but a book rant? I haven’t had one of those since one of those really shitty romance novels I read.

So why did I go back to Catherine Coulter? Especially after The Cove was so disturbingly bad? Well, first, I had read The Maze years ago, but couldn’t remember its quality. I guess I thought the chance was pretty good that it’d be at least as bad as The Cove?

I do want to take a moment and say that, if I were forced to score these books against each other, I would give The Maze a slight edge over The Cove. Mainly because Ms. Coulter has grown (slightly) as a writer in that she doesn’t have one-sided dialogue tell the story any longer; but still, it’s baaaad.

Before I start this verse of The Rant Song, I suppose I should tell you some of the plot.

The star of the book is Lacey Sherlock – yes, that is her real name. Yes, Ms. Coulter incorporated every single fucking “Sherlock” pun she could think of. Yes, it gets incredibly tedious. Lacey Sherlock is a rookie FBI agent. Upon graduation from Quantico, she is recruited into Dillon Savich’s unit on criminal behavior or something. Look, I’m not going to look it up, y’all should know that by now. But Savich uses computers to track trends and catch serial killers and I’m all, whatever. Oh, PS, this was written twenty years ago, so the technology is wicked dated.

Savich wants Sherlock on his team because a) she figured out he was the bank robber in her last Quantico / Robber’s Alley simulation, and b) apparently she’s the best FBI trainee Quantico had ever seen since J. Edgar Hoover.

silence_of_the_lambs_jodie-foster_clarice-starling

Yeah — I’m right there with ya, Clarice.

So Savich hires Sherlock onto his team, and she quickly breaks a case that the rest of the team had been working on for a while, and I’m all, whatever. But in the middle of the case, Savich quickly realizes that Sherlock … has a secret.

Because of course she does.

See, her sister was murdered by a serial killer! Seven years ago, the serial killer lured her sister, Belinda, into a giant maze, and when Belinda got to the center of the maze, he cut out her tongue and killed her! And Sherlock has been hiding this secret (?) for seven years while she graduated college and underwent FBI training, all so she could catch the serial killer and kill him in return! And no one knew about her dead sister this entire time?

And then her sister’s widower comes to Washington unexpectedly and starts stalking Sherlock, who is polite (because even though her sister’s dead, he’s still considered “family”) but aloof. But he ain’t having none of it. Also, everyone – her ex-brother-in-law, Savich’s … secretary, I’m going to say, because I can’t remember and never looking it up, y’all – but everyone is assuming that Sherlock is sleeping with Savich. But she’s not. At least, not right now. It does happen, eventually – and not that hotly, either, but I’mma gonna get to that.

And then Savich figures out Sherlock’s … secret, and instead of kicking her out of the Bureau, he helps her find the serial killer, which they do … by doing a Google search on lumber? You guys, I can’t even with how dumb this is. Anyway, Sherlock goes “under””cover” to find the serial killer, and it is just —

God, this whole thing is so dumb. So the serial killer, Marlin Jones – his real name, hand to God – kills women who badmouth their husbands or significant male partners. It also helps him kill them if they use profanity.

That’s it. That’s the motive.

hannibal-smirk

Yes, Hanni – that is adorable, compared to you.

Ugh – I just realized how much I miss Hannibal.

ANYWAY. So Marlin kidnaps Sherlock (who’s still “under””cover”), takes her to a new Maze, and she gets him arrested. But – how – there’s still a hundred pages left in the book? Da fuck??

Oh, but don’t worry, there’s plenty more ludicrous-ness to go. See — Savich’s secretary is still being mad jealous of Sherlock for no fucking reason, and hires some dude to break into Sherlock’s apartment and tell her to leave town, but also, he threatens to rape her. This after Sherlock was stabbed or concussed or something in getting rescued from Marlin’s maze. So in the middle of being threatened with rape, Savich manages to come to her rescue and bring her back to the hospital. When she’s released, he takes her to his condo, they do sex, and then Marlin escapes? (That’s not as connected as it sounds – it’s not like their sex is what releases Marlin from prison.) Or, wait – she has to go back to San Francisco for some family thing, and Savich is now in love with her and won’t let her be alone for five friggin’ minutes, and that’s when Marlin escapes! (Don’t worry guys, it literally doesn’t matter which is the real turn of events.) And then we find out that Marlin’s dad – whose name is Erasmus, be tee dubs, what the fuck – is also out of jail and most importantly, alive? And kind of the ringleader of the whole Maze-serial killer-thing? And also Douglas, Sherlock’s ex-brother-in-law, may have also been boinking Sherlock’s mom? While having the hots for Sherlock? Oh, and also married to a right See You Next Tuesday?

Seriously. You guys. I am never making it up.

And as if the plot weren’t! bad! enough!? Ms. Coulter’s writing has. not. improved. At least, not as much as I’d hoped.

Oh my god, a thousand words and I haven’t even started quoting this shit. Goddammit.

Okay, where do I want to start. Oh — so, back when I read The Cove, I ranted about how bad her dialogue was. I just reread that review, and apparently, my apoplexy rendered me unable to point out Ms. Coulter’s tendency to start bits of dialogue – usually a sentence at the end of a paragraph – with a “Yeah, [statement].” And the character isn’t even answering a question!

Here are some examples from The Maze, because yes, I dogeared all of them.

“Can you help us?”

“Both Agent Sherlock and I have just a few questions. Perhaps we can meet with your people and get the answers. Yes, Captain, there’s not a doubt in my mind that we can help you.” [p. 32]

Y’know, common parlance is to answer a dude’s question once it’s asked. So, y’know, “Yes, Captain, there’s not a doubt in my mind that we can help you” should come first. But – y’know what, it’s fine.

“Yeah, she’s out like a light.  Keep an eye on her, Savich.  She scared the hell out of every cop in that warehouse, but she sure got the job done.  Funny thing how her shooting him saved his life.  If you hadn’t called a quick halt, the cops would have turned him into a pincushion. Hey, we’ll call tomorrow. Oh yeah, we got a lot on him.”  [p. 122]

“The young cop who messed up and let two of the old people go in that Florida nursing home murder – he has no idea. We were right – all old people look the same to him. Oh yeah, there’s been a spate of murders in South Dakota, right in Elk Point, then the guy went over the border into Iowa.” [p. 218]

“I’m going to call Jimmy Maitland and let him know we’re back. And Ollie. Yeah, I think I’ll give Hannah a ring. Yes, I think you’re right. She’s probably behind the leak. I’m beginning to think this might be a good time for her to transfer to another section.” [p. 262]

It’s so. annoying.

Also annoying – how people can’t just fucking come out and say Sherlock has goddamned reddish hair. Look at this stupidity from Savich’s stream of consciousness:

He cocked open an eye. Sherlock was standing over him, a shock of her red hair falling over to cover the side of her face. He watched her tuck the swatch of hair behind her ear. Nice hair and lots of it. Her eyes were green, a pretty color, kind of mossy and soft. No, her hair wasn’t really red, but more red than anything else. There was some brown and a dash of cinnamon color as well. He guessed it was auburn. That’s what he’d thought the first time he’d seen her. [p. 38-39]

A hundred pages later, and he’s still not convinced he knows what color her hair is:

That hair of hers had come loose from the clasp and was rioting around her face – red hair that wasn’t really a carrot red or an orange red or even the auburn he’d thought, but a mixture of this color and that. She had lots of hair. Actually very beautiful hair.  [p. 123]

Even Sherlock’s ex-brother-in-law, Douglas, cannot just call red hair “red”:

[Douglas] touched her hair, then sifted it through his fingers. “Beautiful. It’s auburn, but not really. Perhaps more Titian, but there’s some blond in there too and some brown.” [p. 47]

What the fuck. Guy’s a douchemonster. Wouldn’t know Titian if it came up and bit him in the face. (I’ll get to Douchemonster in a minute.)

Okay. I have been writing this review for entirely too long. So, I’ve just gone through my Word document of quotes that I want to bitch about, and divided them up into categories. Without further ado:

CATEGORY ONE: Man, These Serial Killers Are Awful Talkers

So, remember: the serial killer who leads the poor defenseless women into The Maze is Marlin Jones, acting under the influence of his father, Erasmus Jones. I am never making it up. And remember their motive!cute: they don’t like women who badmouth their husbands, and they especially don’t like women who swear. Here, Marlin monologues (!) to Sherlock about one of his prior victims while she’s in the middle of The Maze:

“He brought her in one night. They had a big argument right there. She even threw a beer in his face. She cursed him up one side and down the other. She even called him a motherfucker. Most women, even bad ones like you, they don’t say that word. That’s a word for real bad guys.” [p. 135]

YOU WATCH IT, MOTHERFUCKER. Although maybe it’s slightly comforting that at least a serial killer might be able to like me for who I am as a person?

hannibal-smiling

Besides as food, Hanni.

ANYWAY. There’s also that dude that Savich’s secretary, Hannah, hired to scare Sherlock into leaving Savich alone. Y’know, the one that breaks into Sherlock’s apartment and scares her when she’s getting out of the shower (oh, I forgot to mention that part:)

“Why do you want me to leave Washington?”

The gun stopped.  He drew his hand away.  “Your mama and daddy need you at home. It’s time you went back there and took care of your responsibilities. They don’t want you here, involved in conspiracies and shooting people, the way the FBI does. Yeah, they want you home. I’m here to encourage you to go.”

“I’ll tell you why I can’t go back just yet. You see, there’s this murderer, his name is Marlin Jones, and he just killed this woman in Boston. He’s a serial killer. I can’t leave just yet. I’ll tell you more but it could take a while.  Can’t I put on some clothes? We can go in the kitchen, and I’ll make some coffee?” [p. 173]

Yes, offer the person who is waving a gun in your naked face some coffee, Sherlock! There’s no way that will end badly! (PS, I am going to get into how Sherlock talks. Christ on sale.)

But anyway, she asks him what his name is (because remember, this individual is unrelated to the main serial killer plot!), and this is, hand to God, his entire response:

“Who are you?”

He laughed. “Call me Sam. You like that? Yeah, that’s me – Sam. My pa was named Sam too. Hey, I’m the son of Sam.” [p. 174]

I can’t with that shit. Here’s why I can’t with this shit: It’s fucking lazy writing that has no point.

ALLOW ME TO ELUCIDATE. (P.S., this is a thing I do with my employees when they write letters to taxpayers: if I feel they’re going off on tangents, I show them “the point” of every sentence they have written. And if there is repetition, or no “point,” the sentence gets fucking cut.)

  1. “Call me Sam.”
    Okay. So, if it had stopped there, I wouldn’t have had an issue. Sherlock asked who he is, and he answered: “Call me Sam.” And with just that one line, we the reader could infer that “Sam” is not his real name, and we can move on.
  2. “You like that?”
    Now, “Sam” is asking Sherlock if she likes his choice of name. Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t matter what Sherlock likes or wants. This person broke into her apartment, and came upon her when she was getting out of the shower. She is naked, unarmed in all senses of the word: she is beyond vulnerable. “Sam” has all the power in this scenario, and there is no need – besides emphasizing his louse-ness, I suppose – for “Sam” to ask if Sherlock likes his name. And even if he’s not asking her how he did for a name choice, if he’s just making noise? That’s almost worse.
  3. “Yeah, that’s me — Sam.”
    Great – he’s re-emphasizing his choice. Either to make sure Sherlock gets what she is to call him, or – and this is my theory – he’s really proud that he came up with a name so quickly when asked, and now he’s just chuffed about it.
  4. “My pa was named Sam too.”
    This sentence was either written to show the level of education “Sam” has (“pa” as opposed to “father”), or as setup for the next sentence. There is no other reason this information need be relayed to Sherlock.
  5. “Hey, I’m the son of Sam.”
    Oh, it was a joke. Now, before you get all up in arms about “See? He needed the fourth sentence so the joke lands in the fifth”, I must ask you: does the joke land? And, more importantly, is the joke necessary? I posit NO.

This has been “Story Structure Theory OR: Is That Sentence Really Necessary?” With Alaina Patterson.

(God, that whole paragraph pissed me off royally.)

CATEGORY TWO: Douglas, Sherlock’s Ex-Brother-in-Law, Is a Terrible, Terrible Person

He is. He is a terrible, terrible person. He is a misogynist. He is abusive, both mentally and physically so. He is hitting on Sherlock while married to a woman who is just as awful as he is. He makes me so angry, he just makes me want to – set him on fire!

poor-freddie-lounds

This is part of our first introduction to Douglas:

“Let’s go eat, Lacey.”

“You look like a prince and I look like a peasant. Let me change. It’ll take me just a minute. Oh yeah, everybody calls me Sherlock.”

“I don’t like that, I never did. And everybody has to make a stupid remark when they meet you. It doesn’t suit you. It’s very masculine. Is that what the FBI is all about? Turning you into a man?” [p. 51]

Here, we have another instance of somebody going “Yeah, [statement]”: this time from Sherlock. But let’s talk about Douglas. He takes her statement – “everybody calls me Sherlock” – and interprets it that the FBI is taking away Sherlock’s femininity. Go fuck yourself, Douglas.

At dinner, Douglas brings up the fact that he’s probably going to marry some woman back home because she claims he got her pregnant. And to show how absolutely awful Douglas is, that’s not the worst part of it:

“She claims I got her pregnant and I suppose that I could have, but I’ve always been so careful. Living in San Francisco, you’re probably the most careful of any American.” [p. 53]

WHAT THE EVERLOVING FUCK. FIRST OF ALL, GO FUCK YOURSELF, DOUGLAS. And SECOND OF ALL, GO FUCK YOURSELF, CATHERINE COULTER. 

This is not the first time Catherine Coulter has elevated the link between homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic in a completely unsympathetic way. I remind you of this, from my review of The Cove:

So Sally has been kidnapped for the umpteenth time, this time by her not-father. And her not-father is monologuing about his reasons for institutionalizing her and making her life a living hell. And here is where he brings up her gay husband:

“And, you see, I knew all about his lover. At least I made sure you didn’t get AIDS.” [316]

At least I made sure you didn’t get AIDS. [“Fiction: ‘The Cove’ by Catherine Coulter”]

I mean, goddammit. And before y’all start saying, “Alaina, this was written twenty years ago,” fuck you, twenty years ago was 1997! 1997 was recent enough to realize that gay people are not walking contagions for AIDS, which is exactly what Ms. Coulter is implying, in both of these novels. You cannot tell me with a straight face that Ms. Coulter is merely referring to birth control when it comes to Douglas “being careful” while “living in San Francisco.” This is homophobia, plain and simple, and I will fucking call people out on their fucking bullshit when I see it. So both of them – the fictional character and its creator – can go fuck themselves.

What else does Douglas do? Oh, how about lurk outside of Sherlock’s apartment, waiting for her to come home?

“Is that Savich?”

She was so startled she nearly fell over backward. As she was flailing for balance, he came out from behind a tree. “Oh my heavens, it’s you, Douglas. You nearly stopped my heart. Is something the matter? Is everyone all right?”

“Oh yes. I’ve been waiting for you, Lacey. I came over hoping we could have dinner. But you weren’t here.” [p. 60]

What the fuck. Also, he kisses Sherlock without her permission, and then his wife, Candice, who I’m fucking getting to, barges in and accuses him (rightly) of being a cheating pig, and then this happens:

“Candice,” he said very patiently, as if speaking to an idiot witness, “Lacey is part of my family. Just because Belinda died, I didn’t cut her out of my life.”

“I saw you kissing her through the window, Douglas.”

“Yes,” he said quite calmly. “I did. She’s very innocent. She doesn’t kiss well and I like that.”  [p. 151]

I … I don’t even have any more vitriol left for him. Go fuck yourself, Douglas. Go find the most splintered broomstick in your woodshed and just … go to town on your own asshole with it. Fuck you, you disgusting excuse for a fictional character.

CATEGORY THREE: Douglas’s Wife Candice Ain’t Much Better

So remember, Candice was the woman who Douglas at first thought was knocked up. Turns out, she was lying to get him to marry her. When they got married, she admitted that she was not pregnant. So Douglas returns to attempt to get Sherlock back – even though he never had her in the first place, so “back” is a misnomer. And then Candice follows Douglas – from San Francisco – and manages to follow Douglas back to Sherlock’s apartment, unbeknownst to either Douglas or Sherlock.

“I followed you, Douglas. And you came here just like a little trained pigeon. I knew you’d come to her, even though I prayed you wouldn’t. Damn you, I’d hoped our marriage meant something to you. Just look, you let her kiss you. You’ve got her lipstick on your mouth. Damn you, you smell like her.” [p. 151]

This isn’t the first time Ms. Coulter does this, but do you notice how she repeats key phrases in the same paragraph? That’s another thing I’d use my red pen on with my employees.

A hundred pages after this, Candice is badmouthing Belinda to Sherlock and Savich:

“Belinda had low tastes. I’ve heard that she went to dives, to real low-class places. That’s where she would have met this killer. Yes, I’ll bet she did sleep with him. She slept with everyone. Why don’t you ask her?” She turned and gave Lacey a vicious look. “Yes, ask the little princess here.” [p. 248]

“Now, Candice, how do you know so much about Belinda? She was killed seven years ago. You weren’t even around then.”

“I’m an investigative reporter. I looked up everything. I spoke to people who’d known her.” [p. 249]

I just … I don’t see the point of having such an antagonistic person in this story. What purpose does Candice serve? How does she contribute to the narrative? This book has so many stupid plot tangents that you could completely cut out the whole Douglas and Candice shit and you’d still have … well, you’d still have a mess, but that’s because the whole motive behind testing women by having them walk a maze is fucking stupid.

CATEGORY FOUR: … Oh my god.

And not just any normal “oh my god.” This is the Bob Belcher, pinch-the-bridge-of-his-nose-in-disgust “oh my god.”

bob-oh-my-god

So when I read these, please realize that the primary reaction I had was to facepalm myself and mutter, “oh my god.”

“What’s your name?”

“Lacey Sherlock.”

“No one’s named that. That’s stupid. That’s out of some dumb detective story.” [p. 134]

YOU MEAN LIKE THE ONE I’M READING? oh my god.

“What’s going on, Savich?”

“My gut. You’ve never before mistrusted my gut, sir. Don’t mistrust it now. I’m out of here and on my way to her house. She was going there to get more stuff. We made a firm time date. She isn’t here. Sherlock’s always on time. Something’s happened and I just know it’s Marlin and Erasmus. Put out an ABP on her car, Mazda, 4X4 Navajo, license SHER 123.” [p. 307]

HER LICENSE PLATE, YOU GUYS. WHAT KIND OF FUCKING AMAZING FBI AGENT HAS A GODDAMNED PERSONALIZED LICENSE PLATE. ESPECIALLY SUCH A STUPID ONE. OH MY GOD.

And now, the moment that I truly felt bad for Savich:

It was nearly morning when Savich came slowly awake, aware that something strange was happening, something that was probably better than any pesto pasta he’d ever made, better even than having won a huge bet off one of his relatives. The something strange suddenly intensified and he lurched up, gasping. She was leaning over him, her tangled hair covering his belly, her mouth on him. [p. 263]

I may not know too much about blowjobs, but I do know how to tell one apart from pesto pasta. I am so sorry for Savich. I can only imagine his train of thought while he was waking up. What’s — what’s that I’m feeling? Is that … is that pesto pasta on my dick? No, it’s the mouth of the girl I went to bed with last night, and the mouth is on my dick, and it’s doing things that I like. Like, dudes, answer me a question: how much time actually elapses between “being asleep” and “knowing you’ve got a woman sucking your cock”? Isn’t it pretty immediate for you guys? Like, that’s a feeling you know immediately, deep within you(r balls)? HOW DOES HE NOT KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON

oh my god.

Before I get to Category Five, the Katrina of the book, I have one random thing to add because it makes me laugh:

Savich put his elbows on the table, looked directly at the man, and said, “Detective, were there any repairmen in the Lansky household within the past two months?”

Dubrosky reared back, then rocked forward again, banging his fist on the table. “Do you think we’re fucking idiots? Of course we checked all that!” [p. 32]

escalated-quickly

I just want to point out here: this rant is officially longer than my rant on The Revenant. I am so sorry, you guys – I didn’t realize how epic this was going to be.

On to CATEGORY FIVE, THE MOST SERIOUS OF CATEGORIES: Sherlock isn’t as cute as you think she is

One of the traits that comes out in Ms. Coulter’s dialogue is Sherlock’s awkwardness when it comes to speaking. Here’s an example: for context, her direct superior just witnessed Sherlock Poirot-ing about how she solved a case in front of the entire staff meeting, but she neglected to inform her direct superior first.

“There honestly wasn’t time, Ollie. No, of course there was time. It’s just that I, oh damn, this sounds ridiculous, but I really wasn’t even thinking about it until it popped right into my head. Surely you’ve done the same thing.”

[…] “It wasn’t a very nice thing to do, Sherlock.”

“No, you’re right. It wasn’t. I can only say that I honestly wasn’t thinking about it.” It was true. She hadn’t known that Savich would put her on the spot in front of the whole Unit, but he had. There’d been no time then to say anything to Ollie. No, there’d been time. She just hadn’t thought about it. [p. 77]

Between the stuttering and the going back and forth about how there wasn’t enough time to tell Ollie, no actually there was, she was just dumb – it’s an annoying quirk.

She’s even indecisive about when she intends to kill Marlin Jones:

“All right, the truth.  He hasn’t told us everything.  If I could have gotten all of it out of him, then I would have shot him clean.  Well, maybe.  Yes, we have to get him to tell us everything, then I’ll shoot him in the chest, I promise.”  [p. 119]

And here, she’s actually doing a rather decent job of defending herself to Jealous Hannah, but then no, wait — yup, there she goes, fucking it up:

“Ollie told me that Savich doesn’t believe in becoming involved with anyone in his unit. That includes all of us, Hannah. If you want him, then I suggest you transfer out. Listen, I just want to catch this monster in Boston. Actually I did lie. I do want Savich’s brain and his expertise. Does that count? Is that brain lust?” [p. 82]

Now, let’s talk about her time being “under””cover” when attempting to bait Marlin Jones into kidnapping her. I know I’ve said it before, but remember: when it comes to Marlin deciding who his next victim will be, the secret word is fucking.

“What are you doing with the plywood, ma’am?” [asks Marlin.]

“I’m building props for my son’s school play, and that’s why I need to use plywood, not hardwood. They’re doing Oklahoma! and I’ve got to put together a couple of rooms that can be easily disassembled then put back up. So I’ll need some brackets and some screws too.”

“Then why’d you pound a nail through it?”

“That was just experimentation. My husband, that fucking son of a bitch, won’t help me, drinks all the time, won’t take part in raising our son, won’t show me any affection at all, well, so I’ve got to do it all myself.” [p. 105]

escalated-quickly

Like, she just decided to fucking go for it. Marlin doesn’t like women who swear? And he doesn’t like women who badmouth their husbands? Okay, let’s call the pretend husband a “fucking son of a bitch”, an alcoholic, and a neglectful parent and lover. Can’t just say “motherfucker,” huh, Sherlock?

Now, this next quote is from just before Marlin kidnaps Sherlock, and I’m not sure what this sentence means:

Her heart pounding, she whirled about, a gasp coming out of her mouth. “Oh goodness gracious, Marlin, you scared the stuffing out of me. Oh yeah, you scared me shitless.” [p. 107]

Is it just another example of Ms. Coulter’s “Yeah, [statement]” tic? Or is it Sherlock realizing she could have swore in the first sentence, so to cover it up she goes, “Oh yeah,” where it could mean “Oh yeah, I mean, you scared me shitless”? I’m not sure. But I do know it’s dumb either way.

This description of Savich’s voice is just fucking lazy:

“Your voice made me quiver – all dark and soft, like falling into a deep, deep well. If I were a criminal, I’d say anything you wanted to keep you talking to me like that. It’s a wonderful voice. Plummy – that’s how a writer would describe your voice.” [p. 183]

NOBODY SAYS ‘PLUMMY’ IN REAL LIFE. You overplayed your hand, Ms. Coulter.

And finally, speaking of Ms. Coulter’s hand, I want to leave you with this statement from her acknowledgements:

Whenever I hear writers brag about how their editors don’t require any changes to their manuscripts, I’m honestly floored. It’s an editor’s job to be the reader’s representative and thus make the manuscript better. And believe me, a manuscript can always be made better.  [Acknowledgements, pg. I]

Well, as I just typed 5,000 words to prove that your editor isn’t worth a goddamned dime, I just have to say: no shit, Sherlock.

jon stewart boom

Grade for The Maze: Twilight stars.

Fiction: “Seduction in Death” by J.D. Robb

seductionAs I was finishing up The Witches, I realized I wanted something a little lighter for my next reading fare. While I was still reading silly little romance novels at home, that genre still isn’t something I feel comfortable reading in public – especially since I don’t read them on my Kindle app. (Or don’t, for the most part.) So I went with the next best thing to a cheesy romance novel: a crime novel with some romance! Also known as, the next book in the J.D. Robb Eve Dallas series.

This book’s villain is actually a team of two: two young, affluent white male geniuses who never got women in high school or college, so they turned to meeting women under pseudonyms online – and really obvious pseudonyms to the modern day reader; I’m talking about John Keats, or Byron. Poets from the Romantic period that people in 2058ish (when the series takes place) might not be as familiar with as we are right now. But they entice a lady via their online profiles, and then when they go out on their first date, they roofie the girls, and then, after they’ve consented (while incapacitated, so, no, consent wasn’t part of the discussion), they inject another drug into the girl’s bloodstream which causes her to have a heart attack mid-orgasm, and die.

Yet another reason why I’m still single.

No, but for real: many well-meaning people have said to me, “Alaina, why don’t you try online dating?” And while I was just as hesitant prior to reading Seduction in Death, this certainly doesn’t help. (Although at least I’d give myself enough credit to know when someone’s masquerading as John Keats or something to figure out they’re lyin’.)

Look, one of my formative influences is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And in episode 8 of season 1, “I Robot, You Jane,” Willow dates Malcolm, and the relationship is all online. Malcolm also turns out to be a demon, but that’s neither here nor there. This conversation between Buffy and Xander, however, completely explains my reservations:

Xander: I mean, sure he says he’s a high school student, but can say I’m a high school student.
Buffy: [duh] You are.
Xander: Okay, but I could also say I’m an elderly Dutch woman. Get me? I mean, who’s to say I’m not if I’m in the elderly Dutch chat room?
Buffy: I get your point. [realizes] I get your point! Oh, this guy could be anybody! He could be weird, or crazy, or old, or … he could be a circus freak! He’s probably a circus freak!
Xander: Yeah, I mean, we read about it all the time. Y’know, people meet on the ‘net, they talk, they get together, have dinner, a show … horrible ax murder.
Buffy: Willow … ax murdered, by a circus freak. Okay, okay, what do we do?

PS, this conversation? aired back in 1997. It’s stuck with me for almost oh god I just counted twenty years. Just because Dude posts a picture of himself, how do I know it’s really Dude? I have trust issues up the wazoo! There is no way I am going to be able to trust anyone, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

holy shit next year is the 20th goddamned anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So anyway, Dear Well-Meaning Friends: stop suggesting I try online dating. Don’t quote to me the magnificent Carrie Fisher, who said “stay afraid, but do it anyway.” As much as I admire her (and god, do I ever), and aspire to her level of life-living, when it comes to that avenue, there are Things I (clearly) need to work on (probably via talk therapy), and until those Things have been Worked, online dating will be a no-go for me. And I’m okay with that.

oh god how will i be able to trust a stranger in talk therapy i’m probably going to assume he’s a cannibal and welp there goes that plan

hannibal-season-2-episode-12-hannibal-chair

SO ANYWAY. (I probably should have waited to write this until I was a little less scatter-brained, but I am way behind on blog posts and Hamilton Tickets [who I’m puppy-sitting again] is asleep on my feet and not jumping on me, so I’m going to take advantage of the quiet and my awakeness to get at least one post done.)

There really isn’t much else to talk about plot-wise. If you read these books to keep up with the budding romance between Peabody and McNab, they ended the last book on the outs, but they’re back together by the end of this one. Eve and Roarke are still very tight and in love, and seriously, I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until it’s no longer true: I love their relationship.

“Eve.”

“Don’t.” She held up a finger at Roarke’s quiet tone. “I don’t want to talk about that now. I don’t ever want to talk about it, but I especially don’t want to talk about it now. And if anybody had listened to me when I said she and McNab getting tangled was going to screw things up, we wouldn’t have to talk about it, would we?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re talking about it.”

“Oh, shut up.” [p. 73]

The only other dogears I made in the book all detail the villains’ attitude towards their victims. They’re rich, well-educated, assholey white boys who are killing women because women never paid them attention while they attended their genius schools. It’s exactly as horrifying and probably indicative of actual attitudes as you can imagine. And we’ve all had a rough week, month, year – even though J.D. Robb / Nora Roberts wrote these characters back in 2001, I don’t want to bring any more negativity into this week if I can help it.

Grade for Seduction in Death: 2.5 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Witches: Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff

the WitchesMerry Christmas Eve! Let’s spend the time between now and the annual live-tweet of Alaina Watches Die Hard, The Best Christmas Movie In History, No I’m Serious, Don’t @ Me, by discussing a) a book I finished reading six months ago, b) about witches. So, completely the wrong holiday. Whatever; deal with it.

As you can tell from the title of the book, Ms. Schiff’s research attempts to find out what exactly led to the events of the Salem Witch Trials. She goes through the years 1690 through 1694 in deep detail, focusing on each family of Salem and their interactions, and discussed how political and interpersonal relationships could have led to exacerbating the situation with the witches.

The first quote I dogeared (and then transcribed into a Word document, because this was a library book and I didn’t want to incur six months’ of overdue fees just to be able to quote things afterwards) speaks to the mystery still attached to Salem:

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our [nation’s] first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. [p. 4-5]

For as many details there are in the book – and there are plenty – there are no true, definitive answers. The source materials Ms. Schiff draws from are incredibly deficient – family diaries, incomplete court testimonies, and the biased opinion essays of pastors and preachers related to the trials.

While the bewitched commanded a rapt audience for much of a year, their voices are lost to us. Their words come to us exclusively from men who were far from thorough, seldom impartial, and not always transcribing in the room in which they heard those statements. They mangle and strangle the voices of the accused; they are equally inattentive to the accusers, not all of whose statements they committed to paper. [p. 12]

I think everyone here must be aware of the basic plotline of the Salem Witch Trials: young girls start acting weird and accusing other women in town of being witches and using their witchcraft against them, everyone believes them, and at the end of it all, nearly twenty residents were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft. In fact, everything the collective consciousness knows about the Salem Witch Trials most likely comes from our reading of The Crucible when we were in high school. But The Crucible was a parable Arthur Miller used to expose the hypocrisy and hysteria surrounding McCarthyism, and should not be considered a historical artifact, regardless of the fact that Mr. Miller used the names of actual Salem residents for his characters.

Ms. Schiff attributes the cause of the Salem Witch Hysteria to many things, including a general distrust of women, an incredibly oppressive religious atmosphere, and a contagious psychological disorder. Sadly, we will never know the true root of the issue, as that is lost to history. Thanks, Puritan judges and other people back then who didn’t realize they should really WRITE THINGS DOWN.

Relatively early in her narrative, Ms. Schiff discusses the attitudes towards the women involved in the Witch Trials. She points out that this is one of the few times in history where the actions are directly related to the actions of women:

History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort. [p. 131]

Additionally, she discusses the power surrounding these women, and how the mysticism of witchcraft increased that power:

The wrinkle with Salem’s infernal onslaught of 1692 was that both the spirited victims and their oppressors were predominantly female. And in a New England first, women’s voices proved so commanding that the spectral testimony of two dead wives could prevail in court against an articulate, Harvard-educated minister. [p. 145]

Think about that: this is a period of time before the United States Consitutiton was even a thought. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington hadn’t even been born. The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” hadn’t been put forth yet. So our modern concept of a “trial” is not even closely related to what occurred in Salem. In Salem in 1692, a judge could accept the “testimony” of deceased women over that of a minister who had graduated from Harvard. That is a crazy concept to wrap one’s head around.

The accusations of witchcraft and witchery flew throughout the town, and created an oppressive atmosphere that centered on a form of gaslighting: fingers pointing at nearly every citizen of Salem, accusing them of witchcraft, and using previous actions as specious proof of interacting with the Devil:

For weeks the women had been stretched on the most pernicious of psychological racks: You are not what you think you are, they were hectored; you are what we think you are. [p. 235]

The biggest piece of new information regarding the Salem Witch Trials was actually a supposition or extrapolation: Ms. Schiff proposes that the cause was a form of mass hysteria, known as conversion disorder, where physical symptoms can arise following an emotional or mental crisis:

Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms. [p. 386]

The witch hysteria began in the house of Samuel Parris, with his daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams. Samuel Parris was the pastor of the town, and one of the more religious ones they’d had in town for a while. (Which is hard to believe, seeing as how Puritan the whole area was.) As Ms. Schiff states,

Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else. [p. 387]

So what would have been the inciting event that caused the mass hysteria? Possibly puberty – I mean, think about it. The two girls in Parris’s household that started the whole thing? Were 9 and 11. And in that type of oppressive religious atmosphere, who’s to say what emotional trauma may have been caused by a religious interpretation of changing bodies? Or even having a thought that went against what had been taught for years upon years? After all,

It would have been easier at the parsonage to have a vision than an opinion. [p. 388]

We will never know what really happened with the Salem Witch Trials – the causes of that trauma have been lost to history. We can only make assumptions and attempt to decipher the few documents from that era that still exist, and recognize that whatever was written down, was written from the points of view of extremely religious views and interpretations. But we can’t forget the Salem Witch Trials, or even attempt to ignore it. While the cause may have been conversion disorder, the unfounded persecution against a minority that led to the deaths of innocents was still the result.

The Salem Witch Trials endure in American history “not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt” [p. 413]. We as a people use the Witch Trials any time someone feels unjustly persecuted. But instead of using it as a label, or a crutch, we should use it as a reminder: we have done this before. We have pointed our fingers, as a society, at fellow citizens and deemed them guilty of crimes that were not proven. We killed innocents out of fear of the unknown. That era is not a time we should hope to return to. We should look to that era as a warning of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come, so as to not slide.

Grade for The Witches: Salem, 1692: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Rogue Not Taken” by Sarah MacLean

rogue-not-takenI had every intention of getting back into this a couple of weeks ago. But a couple of weeks ago the entire world turned upside down, and I kind of feel like the British troops did when they were run out of Yorktown – stunned, disheartened, and slightly confused as to how this all even fucking happened.

However, fear not: this is not a politics blog – even though I have had the occasional tangent down that dark alley. But my promise to you, my dear reader(s), is to maintain this blog in the same way I always have: poorly, with non-sequiturs and tangents, and only rarely discussing the actual plot of the books I read. And that’s a promise I won’t break.

So this is the third out of currently six “silly little romance novels” I’ve read thus far in 2016. Fun Fact!: I both began and finished reading this book while in the middle of reading The Witches. Y’ALL FORGOT THE WITCHES WAS GONNA BE A THING, didn’t you?! Don’t worry – it’s still coming up. Next, in fact. It’s, uh … it’s a Thing on its own.

I’d read a lot of good press about Sarah MacLean’s romances – that the heroines she wrote about were intelligent women with their own agency and a generous dash of snark, and that the romancing itself was very hot. I have to say, the press was actually correct in that respect. Now, pardon me while I quickly skim through the book to remind myself about the plot, because I read it in July.

(Another Fun Fact!: I was going to review this a couple of days ago, while I was puppysitting Hamilton Tickets for my parents [[oh my god i don’t think i’ve talked about Hamilton Tickets on here GIVE ME A MINUTE THIS WILL BE A TREAT]], but the book fell out of my laundry basket on my way downstairs and it was left on my deck outside for 24 hours [I live on the second floor and my entrance is through an open-air deck], wherein the book got rained on. But let’s take a moment to thank Avon Publishing for their stellar choice of cover material. The cover is only slightly warped, but the pages inside are STILL DRY.)

[[After My Sister’s Wedding, Mom and Dad got a puppy. Her real name is Ginger, but Hamilton Tickets is shaping up to be an excellent nickname (Thanks, Alaina’s Dear Friend Sarah!). Also, my goal in mentioning Hamilton Tickets is to get this picture to come up when people google “Hamilton Tickets”:

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LOOK AT THAT FAAAAAAACE SHE’S SO PRECIOUS]]

Okay, Alaina – the book. Talk about the book.

The Rogue Not Taken is the first book in the series “Scandal and Scoundrel”: each book in the series deals with gossip rags published and read among the ton, and while I think each subsequent book deals with a tertiary character from the last book in the series, I don’t think it will be like other romance series where each book deals with another member of the same family. I’m not sure, to be honest; the second book in the series was only recently released, so I’m not 100% sure what the pattern will be.

So in The Rogue Not Taken, we are introduced to the Talbot sisters: a family of five girls who rose to prominence when their parents purchased a title. The ton gets all mad because they don’t like upstarts who purchase titles; they only approve homegrown blue-bloods. Sophie, the youngest Talbot, keeps to herself and stays out of the gossip rags – unlike her sisters. And the story starts when her temper gets the better of her, and she pushes her brother-in-law into a goldfish pond after discovering him boinking someone else at a party.

In a spontaneous moment, she decides to leave London and return to her childhood home in Cumbria. But because this is 1833 and not 2013, she can’t exactly take an Uber there. So with the last of her pocket money, she hires a footman away from a carriage and disguises herself as said footman and hitches a ride on said carriage and rolls right into trouble.

Because she’s an unchaperoned young woman not fooling anyone in her footman’s clothes. And the carriage happens to belong to a dude whose name is, hand to God, “Kingscote.” He goes by “King.” Alaina is Never Making It Up. He is a bit of an asshole, at first – he’s heading back to his hometown (which is just outside of Sophie’s hometown, because coincidence is prevalent in silly little romance novels) because his dying father wants King to come back home and accept his responsibilities as duke. Or marquess. Whatever title King doesn’t want to do. I know he’s not an actual king.

See, King and his dad had a falling out, because years ago, King loved a commoner, and King’s Dad disapproved of the match, and when King’s Dad ran the girl off of the estate, the coach she was in careened her to her death, and King blames King’s Dad for it and that’s why he’s returning home reluctantly. Also, he’s vowed to never marry and the line ends with me and all that jazz.

(This is the second book I can recall where this is a major plot line. Spoiler alert!: they always change their mind.)

When he finds out that Sophie’s going in the same direction he is, his first assumption is that she’s trying to trap him into marriage – much like her sisters did with their husbands. But all Sophie wants to do is return to Cumbria, open a bookshop, and meet up with her childhood sweetheart Robbie and hope he’s still unattached. (Spoiler alert!: he’s not.)

King attempts to leave Sophie to her own devices, but she sells his fancy curricle wheels behind his back to get some money for a ticket on the mail coach. When King finds out, he goes after her (for the wheels, definitely not because he thinks he likes her, we’re only 100 pages in at this point, he hasn’t recognized what that feeling is yet). But when he gets to the mail coach, the passengers are being robbed at gunpoint, and Sophie actually gets hit. It’s a non-critical hit, but a hit nonetheless.

Can I just take a minute and praise this plot? First, let me point out to you the pun in the title: The Rogue Not Taken = “the road not taken.” This is a book full of road trip hijinks! Where the heroine takes a bullet! Unfortunately, the road trip aspect involves a lot more romance and no Hamilton karaoke, so it’s not exactly like an Alaina Patterson Road Trip™, but it’s still pretty hijink-ey. (The other part of the title that makes it almost a pun is that King is a rogue who is unattached – i.e., not taken. Geddit?)

I’m sorry. I don’t know why I didn’t trust you guys (are there more than one of you? Sometimes I wonder…) to get the pun in the title. I’m a bad person.

King takes Sophie to the nearest village and the doctor saves her, and then King feels responsible so he agrees to take her back to Cumbria. To keep an eye on her. Definitely not because he thinks he’s falling in love with her, dudes don’t do that.

Also, if you like heroines who don’t believe they’re pretty and heroes determined to prove them otherwise (see The Deception of the Emerald Ring), it becomes a theme between Sophie and King.

King eventually brings Sophie to his childhood home and introduces her to his father. We learn that the grudge King bears his father isn’t fully deserved, and Sophie and King work towards declaring their love, when Sophie’s family barges in and comes up with a cockamamie plot to trap King into marrying her, against Sophie’s will. She loves him for him and not his title or fortune, but her family doesn’t see it the same way.

There’s an obstacle in – not even the third act, it’s practically the denouement – but it’s overcome quickly. Again, the obstacle arrives in the last fifty pages, so it’s a quick descent to the happily-ever-after.

The banter between King and Sophie is great throughout the book, and the romance is quite steamy, and practically modern compared to some other novels I’ve read. (Stephanie Laurens’ next book in the Cynster series, A Rake’s Vow, I’m giving you this face right now:)

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So I’m definitely adding Sarah MacLean to my list of authors where I must read every thing she’s ever done, because I really liked it. Even if “King” is a really stupid name for a dude.

Grade for The Rogue Not Taken4 stars

Non-Fiction: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

bonkOkay, I’m going to try and bang this one right out. (thematically-appropriate puns for the win!)

Picture it: I’m getting ready to drive to D.C. for Operation: Pick Up My Dear Friend Sarah In D.C. So She Can Photograph My Sister’s Wedding. And I know I’m going to stop occasionally for food, and since I’m going to be alone, I intend to bring a book with me to read at the table. I don’t want to bring Alexander Hamilton – it’s way too big. The other book I was currently reading at time was What a Pirate Desires, and that cover would have surely inspired conversations that I didn’t want to have. Namely, I was using the drive as an escape from talking to people.

So I wanted a book that a) I owned, because I have previously left library books at someone’s house accidentally, which then caused that person to mail my library book back to me so I could return it (thanks Sarah!), b) was small enough to fit in my purse without weighing a metric ton, and c) interesting enough that I would actually read it on the road.

And Bonk was what I found. I know I bought it a while ago because of its subtitle: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. But I definitely brought it with me on my trip this year because the cover was innocuous enough that no one would give it a second thought:

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No one said a word to me aside from “More coffee, dear?” The answer to which was, “Can I get it to go? Thanks!”

Oh, I know why I bought this – I just looked through the book to find Mary Roach’s credentials, and I saw via the hand-written “$7.50” on the inside cover that I bought this at one of my trips to the Harvard bookstore – probably my first trip, where I bought Mildred Pierce. And that would have timed when I had Showtime and was into watching Masters of Sex, the story of Masters and Johnson and their human sexuality study. See? I’m not a pervert, I’m just curious!

And Mary Roach is, above all, curious. Other books she’s written before and since Bonk include: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on My Dear Friend Emily’s bookshelf, seeing as how she originally went to school to become a medical examiner); Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; and her most recent, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War.

Additionally, Ms. Roach does not describe herself as a scientist: I just perused her website and her list of credentials are all her published books and magazine articles; not a single doctorate among them. As a writer who is immersed in her subject the same way I immersed myself in Hannibal – I know the subject inside and out, but I was not one of the creators of Hannibal, just an observer – she is able to write about these subjects in an amazingly accessible way.

Look, I read a lot of books – my book blog backlog as proof positive of that. And of those books, a fair amount end up being non-fiction. And there have been some non-fiction books which were written by people within that field, and the communication tends to get murky because I think the author doesn’t realize s/he should be writing for outside the industry. A perfect example of this is Michael Lewis and The Big Short: Mr. Lewis worked on Wall Street. He dealt with stocks and bonds routinely. So when he went to talk about the housing market crash, he knew what all of those terms meant, because he was within the industry. And while he made valiant attempts to explain those terms within the book, it wasn’t until Adam McKay and the movie did it visually that I was able to say, Yes, I kind of get this now. (I still don’t, and would direct anyone who wants to understand that subject to the film, because it did a really great job.)

But when I read Mr. Lewis’s Moneyball (sidenote, I’m rereading it now – GO CUBS GO oh my god they won the World Series I am still in shock and crying about it), you can tell he is using his statistical background and applying it to baseball, and he doesn’t have the language of baseball because he wasn’t in baseball. Therefore, I find Moneyball more accessible and understandable than I did The Big Short.

For Ms. Roach, as the only industry she is in is writing, any topic she puts her mind to will be like when Mr. Lewis tackles baseball: she’s not in the industry, she doesn’t have the language; therefore, she will make every attempt to explain the terms and concepts to make the concept accessible not only to her, but to her readers as well.

And I appreciated that, reading about Masters & Johnson’s penis camera while eating Momma’s French Toast Breakfast at the Tewksbury, Massachusetts Cracker Barrel.

NOTE FROM THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: Hi, Readers! Thanks for sticking with me through my digressions. Now, look: this book is not a how-to book on sex; it gets into some serious sciencey discussions.  And I’m going to talk about the book now, and that is going to include some strong language: I’m going to be bringing up female genitalia, orgasms, and all sorts of stuff that you may not feel comfortable reading about in a Cracker Barrel. So if you don’t want to know about this or feel that it’s inappropriate to talk about, go ahead and skip to the last paragraph. It’s cool. But I wanted to warn you before you were knee-deep in a paragraph about female masturbation without notice. Cheers!

Masters and Johnson is where Ms. Roach begins, which is an excellent starting point: Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson began their research on human sexuality in the 1950s; prior to that, sex and the science behind it was definitely not an appropriate topic of study. The first season of Masters of Sex attempts to show the difficulties Bill Masters had in getting his study off the ground, but then the show veers into interpersonal relationships and while the show is good, don’t watch it for science, okay? In order to study what actually happens, physiologically, to a woman when she orgasms, they patented a penis-camera: essentially, a vibrator with a camera in it. That discussion leads Ms. Roach into the sex machine industry, where she ends up at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco:

The Center for Sex and Culture does not court the curious passerby. No sign is posted on the outside of the building or inside the entryway. It is a nonprofit in a plain brown wrapper. Eventually, you notice the street number, 298, on a window near the door. There is an intercom with a buzzer labeled CSC. When you ring it, a voice says simply, “Hello?” forcing you to announce that you are HERE FOR THE SEX-MACHINE EVENT. [p. 54]

Ms. Roach’s curiosity leads her through a number of topics: Does the distance between the clitoris and vagina affect the strength of a woman’s orgasm? Does orgasm increase fertility? Is surgery the answer to impotence? How can we diagnose and help low female libido issues?

What fascinates me is how the stigma of talking about sex – even in purely scientific terms – has caused our complete lack of education on these points. And I’m not even talking about abstinence-only programs and how we educate our teenagers on sex directly influences how they will approach sex when they’re old enough and how belief structures fit into all of that. I’m saying, we were able to put a man on the moon within ten years of Jack Kennedy saying we should do that, but we have yet to know definitively how a woman approaches sexual arousal, because we think it’s private and shouldn’t be studied, and who knows how many women could have benefited from that study?

Here’s an example: in Chapter 10, “The Prescription-Strength Vibrator,” Ms. Roach meets with doctors who are trying to find solutions for so-called “sexually dysfunctional women.” I say “so-called” because I don’t want a man to tell me what’s considered sexually dysfunctional to me as a woman; I am not discounting a woman’s sense of being dysfunctional in that department. But she brings up a theory: if a physical symptom of arousal is increased blood flow to the clitoris, and increased blood flow can also be caused by manual stimulation, would increased masturbation lead to increased arousal for a woman during intercourse? Ms. Roach emails this question to a professor of gynecologic oncology, who then refers her to Maryann Schroder, a licensed sexology at the University of Chicago.

“You have posed a very interesting question,” she said. “It hasn’t been studied, if you can believe.” She reminded me of what happened to the last person who got involved with masturbation as a beneficial activity: Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Former President Bill Clinton dismissed Elders after she suggested, in a World AIDS Day speech, that masturbation was something that “should perhaps be taught.”

“Can you imagine if I tried to get funding for a study that had masturbation in the title?” And then, quite unintentionally, Dr. Schroder delivered the ultimate masturbation-research sound bite. “Masturbation,” she said, “is a touchy area.” [p. 209]

WELCOME BACK, Readers who skipped the sex talk but also missed the best pun I’ve ever seen in print!

I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Roach is a wonderful writer, who does not shy away from stigmatized topics, and infuses her research with humor. She’s incredibly welcoming and accessible in her writing, and in non-fiction, that is a huge bonus factor. I highly recommend this book – even if you’re not going to ironically read it in a stereotypical Southern breakfast environment, while escaping from a family wedding (NOTE: I went back, I have the pictures to prove it) – and look forward to reading the rest of Ms. Roach’s back catalogue.

Grade for Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex: 5 stars